Last Updated: Friday, 19 September 2014, 13:55 GMT

Armenia: Repatriation may not solve problems of exodus

Publisher EurasiaNet
Author Haroutiun Khachatrian
Publication Date 12 December 2002
Cite as EurasiaNet, Armenia: Repatriation may not solve problems of exodus, 12 December 2002, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/46f258821c.html [accessed 21 September 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Haroutiun Khachatrian 12/12/02

A EurasiaNet Commentary

Armenia's 2001 census results, which showed up to one-fifth of all Armenians had emigrated during the previous decade, sparked debate over what was perceived as a demographic crisis. Initially, officials sought to reverse the emigration trend. Recent discussion, however, indicates that emigration may not be as debilitating to the state as originally feared. Indeed, some experts now argue that a mass return of émigrés could pose serious challenges for the country.

Many Armenian emigrants in the early 1990s were people who had lost jobs after a severe 1988 earthquake, refugees and people fleeing the economic and energy crises of 1992-95. Almost half a million people left the country during this period, a pattern similar to that witnessed in Georgia and Azerbaijan after the Soviet collapse.

The vast majority of the emigrants stayed in Russia. In response to the emigration, Armenia's government declared ending emigration a policy goal. Serge Sargsian, Defense Minister and Secretary of the Security Council, urged all Armenians living abroad illegally to return home in the summer of 2001. Economically and statistically, there are reasons to suspect that this policy may be counterproductive.

Armenia's weak economy, somewhat counterintuitively, makes the idea of hundreds of thousands of new residents daunting. Emigrants send some $250 million dollars a year, an amount equivalent to nearly half the annual state budget, back to their relatives in Armenia. The government cannot guarantee that, if these people returned to Armenia, they could contribute enough to the economy to replace the transfers they now send to the country. Even if many wealthy expatriates bring all their capital back to Armenia, it is not clear that the government or industry could create enough jobs to sustain a large number of returnees. Instead, the government may face problems if mass forced repatriation of Armenians starts. The first such case happened late in November, when over 100 Armenians were expelled from Turkmenistan.

Moreover, goals of lifting the population by a given amount may be misguided, since data on the population has been unreliable. The official number for recent years was 3.8 million (up from 3.4 million at the previous census in 1989), with a proviso that "an unknown number" of people had left the country. The Chairman of the National Statistical Service, Stepan Mnatsakanian, reported the "actual number" of people in Armenia as 3,000,807 in mid-October 2001. He also estimated that 210,000 people were out of the country for less than a year. This represents an admission by the government that roughly 800,000 fewer people live in the country than it had previously claimed.

The real number of Armenians in the country may be even lower, since the official "actual population" includes foreigners living in the country, the largest group of which consists of Russians on a military base. Some independent analysts – both those affiliated with opposition parties and otherwise – claimed that the actual population of Armenia in the late 1990s did not exceed 2.5 million. If the country struggles now, it might buckle with true population growth.

Another obvious implication of these data is that the population is highly mobile, as around 200,000 people move in and out the country during a year. The authorities had acknowledged even earlier that each year between 60,000 and 70,000 people leaving the country "temporarily" failed to return home. One can conclude, therefore, that now, one year after the census, the actual number of Armenians in Armenia hardly exceeds 2.9 million. Many experts, including Hrant Bagratian, the reformist prime minister of Armenia in 1993-1996, claim that the actual population in the country is in fact even lower.

Critics say the government has at least two reasons to exaggerate the real number of inhabitants. By claiming a given population, they say, the government will be able to organize fraud during the upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections by having "dead souls" vote for the government's chosen candidates. The second reason arises from the fact that the lower the population, the higher the economic output per person. If one supposes that the real population is 2.5 million, then, given the impressive economic growth of the last seven years, the per capita GDP in Armenia would be almost as high as it was in Soviet times. If this data became official, the government would have to explain why over 50 percent of Armenians still are below the poverty line.

The population claims and repatriation appeals may also reflect political gamesmanship. The people who remain in the country are the poorest, while those leaving the country are mostly the most active spenders. The most impoverished people would not quit the country for simple lack of travel funds. Thus, the demographic problem has turned into an economic one, as émigrés remove capital and job skills, and avoid the chance to exercise a significant influence on society. "The exodus from Armenia has a serious impact not only on the country's demographic composition, but also on its political processes. According to our surveys, the number and quality of emigrants comply with the interests of those shaping the republic's political life," says Hranush Kharatian, a leading ethnologist.

Yet even if the government would struggle to absorb returnees, it may rely on them wherever they live. Like most post-Soviet countries, Armenia has seen its population growth rate decline since independence. The birth rate has dropped almost fourfold in the last twelve years. This reflects a general fall in the living standards in the country, but it also reflects migration patterns that divide families; 70 percent of those that emigrated are able-bodied men. If this trend continues further, the national security of the country will be endangered, as there will not be enough people for army and police, according to independent economist Edward Aghajanov. Obviously, a government cannot import soldiers and civil servants the way it can import expatriates' dollars. Despite the problems repatriation might cause, the government may have no choice but to seek it.

Editor's Note: Haroutiun Khachatrian is a Yerevan-based writer specializing in economic and political affairs.

Posted December 12, 2002 © Eurasianet

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